Future Forecast: Tom Conger [Crystal City magazine]
by Hope Katz Gibbs
Crystal City magazine
Photo by Bognovitz
AS YOU RING IN 2001, you may be wondering what will unfold in the next 12 months. According to Arlington-based futurist Tom Conger, the coming decade will probably be filled with a myriad of technological breakthroughs—including kitchen appliances with Internet access, hybrid gasoline-electric automobile, and bottled air being sold in specialty catalogs.
How does he know? The 36-year-old founder of Social Technologies, LLC, is hired annually by dozens of corporations and government agencies to research trends, and determine how they will likely play out in the following months, years, and decades.
Based on in-depth research, and a little intuition, he has conducted “futures studies” for Fortune 500 companies: Siemens, EDS, Kellogg’s, Coca-Cola, and General Motors, and, government agencies such as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Conger is one of only a couple of hundred of trained futurists who hold a degree in futures studies. Although corporate America is filled with “strategic planners” who maintain a vigil on short-term trends, the moniker of “futurist” was considered odd until recently, but in recent decades, the profession has achieved acceptance among scientists, scholars, government officials, and business leaders.
“For years people bought into a popular myth that futurists are in the business of predicting what will happen in the future, but the truth is quite different,” says Dan Johnson, an editor at “The Futurist,” a magazine published by the 30,000-member Bethesda, MD-based World Future Society. “Futurists know better than most people that the future is not predictable.”
“We cannot know what will happen in the future, he continues. “ Futurists quite simply try to suggest things that might happen, so people can decide what they want to make happen. By looking at current trends, for example, it is possible to make a projection of what might be.”
FORECASTING THE FUTURE
When Conger goes about making a forecast, he says: “You have to read absolutely everything, from popular and trade magazines to novels, books and research papers, so you can get a feel for what is happening in the world. “ Once you grasp the trends, you can make some interesting projections.”
He works with clients to create scenarios of how the future might unfold in a company or industry. He creates a cross impact matrix to systematically explore the results of the confluence of different trends; for example, how increasing health care costs and the growing number of elderly people might interact, or how the Internet and burgeoning concern about children might intersect.
“We use several approaches to forecast because the goal is to help a client understand that there are multiple yet plausible futures,” Conger admits, but becoming a successful working futurist is not a job for the average bear.
THE MAKING OF A FUTURIST
Conger always was considered the smart kid on the block. Born in Dallas in 1964, his family moved to the 1,600-person town of Sanger, when he was in grade school. He was quickly spotted as a top student, and placed into the Talented and Resourceful Students (STARS) program. That meant he has to regularly play with the school’s only classroom computer and go on many mind-expanding field trips.
“Being raised in a small town, I was keenly aware that people could make a difference in our community,” he says. “If I had grown up in a large city, I think this truth wouldn’t have been as apparent. In my small town, though, I saw that a person could shape the future—not just accept it or react to it.”
By the time he started college at Texas A&M University in 1983, Conger had decided he wanted to do something that would help shape the future. He thought he might run for office, or work for a government agency. But after a little more investigation into the possibility, he discovered he didn’t want to spend his life
mastering the political process.
So, he looked for another way to bring about change. His first professional job was at the Public Policy Resources Laboratory at Texas A&M, where he helped run the survey research center. At the time, the organization was investigating the effectiveness of state and government programs, such as the Job Training Partnership Act. Two years later, he moved to the M/A/R/C Group, a custom marketing research firm in Dallas; there he researched consumer products.
“These two jobs were really important to my development as a futurist, because some of my clients today are either the executives working in corporate marketing departments, or government officials trying to make a real difference,” he says. “I can speak their language and see the world from their perspective-and that’s important when you are talking about how social attitudes shape the future, even if it is how much people are willing to pay to have pizza delivered to their homes.”
Conger was unaware about the field of futurism, until early 1992. One evening he attended a lecture about the prospects for space travel by Professor Peter Bishop, chairman of the graduate program, Studies of the Future, at the University of Houston-Clear Lake.
When Conger heard he could study such a subject-the future-and possibly make a living of it-he enrolled in the graduate program. That fall he was in the front row of Bishop’s class.
“Tom was a wonderful student who stood out in class,” Bishop recalls. “He was always conscientious, interested, and very precise. At first glance, you wouldn’t think that he makes his living as a futurist because he is very polite and proper, not at all crazy like the rest of us.”
Conger, in fact, was savvy enough to get his first futurist job in Washington at the prestigious think tank of Coates & Jarrratt in 1994. Three years later he joined the Institute for Alternative Futures in Alexandria, where he impressed senior futurist Atul Dighe.
“Professionally, Tom is one of the top futurists under 40,” says Dighe. “He’s in a group of people at the top of the profession, partly because he develops an excellent rapport with his clients and really strives to understand their needs. He offers creative solutions by skillfully going out into the future, then bringing back a solution that will work in the present.”
Last year, Conger started his own firm-a slightly risky move because he is the sole support for wife, Laurel, their young son Tom, with another child on the way. But Conger based his decision on a trend: he forecasts that more companies will realize the benefits of hiring futurists like him.
“In the coming years, I think almost all of the big companies in the world will hire a futurist to help them understand and articulate the future they want to
unfold,” he says.
“The profession is likely to continue to grow in popularity, because people will realize what we do isn’t at all silly. It is logical and useful. In fact, I’d say that not taking advantage of forecasts about the future is what’s ridiculous. Being able to identify the possibilities that are ahead lets people create a plan. It helps them be more successful today and quite likely accomplish more tomorrow. Now, who doesn’t want that?”
LOOKING TOWARD 2001
Conger believes the following six trends that he says may play out within the year:
1. One of your neighbors might get a new kitchen appliance with Internet access. Manufacturers are already showing prototypes. An Internet- enabled microwave, for example, might scan the barcode of a frozen dinner, automatically log on to the website of the food company to find out how long to cook dinner, and determine the proper temperature setting. The microwave might even rotate the meal at the appropriate time. Smart refrigerators are also on the way; they will keep track of items you use. For example, when you run out of milk or tomatoes, the refrigerator will go online and order the needed items from a grocery delivery service such as webvan.com.
2. Someone in your company might buy a hybrid electric vehicle (HEV) that uses electric power and gasoline. The Honda Insight and Toyota Prius-both are HEVs-are available now. The advantages are increased fuel economy and reduced use of fossil fuels, which Conger says will mean fewer pollutants. HEVs can also use regenerative braking technology to transfer some of the energy expended to stop the car to charge up the batteries. “Over the next decade, we may see cars without combustion engines at all,” Conger adds. “They will be powered by fuel cells that use the chemical energy of hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity. The only by-product might be water!”
3. You may be able to buy bottled air from a specialty catalog. Although some people are still amazed that it costs $2 for a bottle of water, others are thinking of more natural commodities that consumers might be willing to gobble up. Bottlers might provide you with a whiff of mountaintop air or the fresh scent of the ocean, Conger says. Or, bottled air might be the perfect environmentally friendly souvenir you purchase from your next trek to the rainforest. “We might also see bottled air that’s been super-oxygenated and sold to help you think more clearly,” he says. If bottled air takes off, we can expect to see do-it-yourself equipment that helps keep smells around for posterity. What’s the big attraction? “Smells are thought to invoke powerful memories; people may be willing to pay for a sniff of their childhood bedroom or a lover’s hair, “ he says.
4. You may use the Internet to call your mother. Statistics show that 9 percent of American women who regularly use the Internet have already placed a phone call online. In 2001, more people are likely to log on to talk to loved ones near and far. The biggest benefit, of course, is that it’s typically free. “Unfortunately, the Internet does not provide the clearest connection, and delays make it tough to have long conversations,” Conger says. “However, as broadband access gets more popular and accessible, talking online will be a more viable option.” Internet phones that look like real telephones are already here, he adds, and they don’t require your being tied to your computer while chatting.
5. Your company could be attacked by hactivists (computer hackers with activist ideals). Anyone who wants to “change the
world” will use the best tools available, Conger says, and the Internet is one of the most powerful ways to effect social change. “Already, hackers have attacked The New York Times’ website, changing news headlines into nasty political statements,” he says. “A less-extreme use of the Internet is to publish negative information about the practices of a company, such as child labor violations.” In response to this trend, some corporations are embracing the concept of radical transparency, a term coined by the World Resources Institute. These companies publish on their websites all of the positive and negative comments made about them-and then respond appropriately.
6. The world is becoming global—and so will you. If you haven’t already, expect to conduct business next year in a foreign language with the help of translation software that works on everything from business correspondence to websites. Altavista.com can translate into English just about any web page that is written in one of the world’s major languages. “Translation software, combined with speech recognition software, will someday allow for real-time voice-to-voice translation,” says Conger “In the next decade, you may be able to have a phone conversation with someone in Japan even though neither of you speak the other’s language.”
2011 AND BEYOND
• We’ll be checking out a cooking website just to smell the food.
• Paying more for a pet’s health care than your own.
• Seeing more centurions living in neighborhoods.
• Reading an article on the end of privacy and asking yourself, what’s the big deal with privacy anyway? Being impressed by just how high-tech some government services have become.
• Having a 15-year-old join a board of directors.
• Popping a hard disk into your VCR instead of videotape.
• Having a heated discussion with your kids about the ethics of electronically tracking their where-abouts.
• Owning sports equipment that can tell you more than you want to know about your performance.
• Having someone call you visionary—and never seeing the world the same again.